Senate's budget version passed

By Billy Corriher

A three-judge federal panel finalized legislative redistricting maps on Thursday, after adjustments that will keep incumbents from having to run against each other.

Rep. Ron Dodson, D-Lake City, would have been forced to run against Rep. Georganna Sinkfield, D-Atlanta, under the court's initial maps, but now will run in a single district with no other incumbents.

"Anytime you put two incumbents in a race, it's tough to run," he said. "(The new maps) brought me totally back into Clayton County."

When the court released its first proposal for new districts earlier this month, more than a third of incumbent lawmakers found they were paired with another legislator, 66 in the House and 21 in the Senate.

Both Republicans and Democrats complained that many districts could easily be tweaked to save incumbents from having to run against each other.

Rep. Mike Lunsford, R-McDonough, said the final version of the maps do a better job of taking into account "communities of interest."

Lunsford said Henry County, in particular, would be better represented under the final maps, which do not split up the county as much as the old maps.

"I think it helped put Henry County back together," he said.

Lunsford said the old maps had many parts of the county included in the districts of legislators outside the county.

Rep. Mike Barnes, D-Hampton, will have a smaller district, instead of sharing a multi-member district with Dodson. Multi-member districts were implemented by Democrats and opposed by Republicans.

Dodson said he prefers single-member districts.

"With single districts, I have to live where I work," Dodson said. "Maybe we have to take more responsibility with one-member districts. (Our constituents) know who to go to."

Barnes said he was pleased that the court decided to separate some of the incumbents.

"We had a lot of people in leadership positions sharing districts, and I'm glad to see them split those up," he said.

Barnes said some districts could have been hurt by not keeping an incumbent because longer-serving lawmakers wield more power.

"Seniority is one of the greatest assets a district can have," he said.

The new maps will replace those drawn by Democratic lawmakers in 2001 and used in the 2002 elections. The court threw those maps out last month because population varied too much in the districts.

The three judges ordered the state to "promptly implement" the maps, since qualifying for candidates begins on April 26. The state's primary is July 20.

Both Republicans and Democrats claimed the final court-drawn maps give them an edge going into this year's elections.

"Republicans now have an opportunity to claim control of the House, but they'll have to earn it," said Republican Sen. Eric Johnson of Savannah, the president pro tem of the Senate.

House Speaker Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, insisted Democrats would keep control of the lower chamber. "It looks like we're around 100 or better, the way our folks look at it," he said. It takes 91 votes to wield a majority in the 180-member chamber.

In other business, Senate Republicans also pushed their version of a $16.4 billion state budget for next year through the Senate with a 42-11 vote on Thursday, brushing off complaints from Democrats that it moves the state too deeply into debt.

The Senate's budget pours more money into health care programs such as Medicaid, but is less generous to public education than the House version of next year's budget.

Sen. Valencia Seay, D-College Park, said she would have liked to see an even higher priority placed on funding for Medicaid.

"But it looks like we have a (Medicaid) funding level we can live with," she said.

Seay said she was disappointed that the Senate version of next year's budget did not include any funding for a commuter rail from Atlanta to Lovejoy, which the House funded at $3 million.

"I think the commuter rail is a step in the right direction to clear the air and ease traffic congestion," she said.

Barnes pushed for the funding in the House budget and said he thinks the money will be put back in the budget as the House and Senate versions are reconciled in a conference committee.

The Senate version of the budget also cuts $224 million from the education funding formula, less than Gov. Sonny Perdue's $380 million suggested cut in his budget proposal. The House scaled back the cut to just $102 million.

Rep. Gail Buckner, D-Jonesboro said lawmakers had to do their best to minimize cuts to local school systems.

"Under the short revenue circumstances we had to deal with, it's a pretty fair document," she said.

The Senate bill does include funding for the state to continue paying for books and fees for HOPE scholars. Lawmakers had considered eliminating those payments to help keep the popular scholarship program afloat.

Also this week, the Legislature gave final approval on Monday to a midyear budget that bails out the state's cash-strapped Medicaid program for this year while imposing spending cuts on most state agencies. Votes of 159-8 in the House and 41-7 in the Senate sent the bill to the governor for his signature.

Most state agencies were cut 2.5 percent, or a total of about $363 million, to compensate for weaker-than-expected tax collections since the budget year began July 1.

Medicaid, the state-federal program of health care for the poor, will get a boost of $172.8 million to help pay claims. PeachCare, the state program for children of the working poor, will get an additional $17.2 million.

Under the mid year budget, local school systems will share the pain of a 2.5 percent cut in the state funding formula for education, a step that will cost them $126.7 million.

The House voted Thursday to allow traffic officials to create high-occupancy toll lanes, which would allow solo drivers to pay to drive in the high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

The lanes are thought to smooth traffic by charging fluctuating rates for admittance. When traffic is light, the charge may be minimal, but when the interstates around Atlanta jam up – a certainty almost every weekday – the rates would increase.

Supporters say the lanes are far from reality in metro-Atlanta but should be seriously considered. The bill passed 160-0 and now must return to the Senate.

Seay, a member of the Senate transportation committee, said she would like to consider HOT lanes, but she was more focused on implementing the commuter rail project as a means to reduce traffic congestion for the southern metro-Atlanta area.

"We do need to eventually consider HOT lanes," she said.

A bill targeting film piracy also passed the House overwhelmingly Thursday. The bill is aimed at people who sneak digital recording devices into movie theaters and record films, then share them on the Internet. The measure has passed the Senate and is ready for the governor's signature.

The House voted 134-0 on Thursday to honor country singer Alan Jackson by naming a stretch of Interstate 85 in his native Coweta County after him.

A House bill preventing obese people from suing fast food restaurants for making them fat passed the Senate on Monday by a vote of 50-0.

"I say let them eat their Big Macs," said Sen. Preston Smith, R-Rome, as he presented the bill.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.